Sanam Vakil | Deputy director of, and senior research fellow in, the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, where she leads project work on Iran and Gulf Arab dynamics

Speculation about an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) takeover has reached new heights in the months of intense protests seen throughout Iran since September 2022. With the political leadership displaying no appetite for reform or accommodation with the protest groups, that people should view the IRGC as a viable alternative that could transition the Islamic Republic into a socially liberal garrison state is interesting in itself.

While the IRGC is by no means monolithic and has diverse factions, it has continued to remain loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s leadership and legitimacy are intimately tied to the IRGC’s growing economic, military, and regionally expansive influence. In tandem with Khamenei, the IRGC has a paranoid security-minded worldview directed at protecting the Islamic Republic from internal dissent and external infiltration. As such, the institution has very much supported a heavy-handed repressive response to the protests, which has included five executions and thousands of arrests, as the best means of protecting the security and stability of the Islamic Republic. Because of this loyalty and interdependency, any change in the regime could only emerge after Khamenei’s death.

Those yearning for such a shift, though, should not see this potentiality as a political or economic panacea for Iran. Rather it would herald the continuation of authoritarian and aggressive nationalistic policies throughout the region that are already supported by the IRGC.


 

Saeid Golkar | UC Foundation assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga; nonresident senior fellow on Middle East policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in the United Kingdom

The possibility of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) supplanting the clerical establishment is implausible for several reasons: the IRGC lacks institutional anatomy, there is solid clerical control over the institution, and the IRGC shares ideological beliefs with the clergy. The IRGC was created in 1980 to protect the clerical regime. Since then, it has always worked as the clergy’s tool to neutralize any threats to the theocratic regime, including coups, foreign interventions, and mass uprisings.

From its inception, the IRGC was under the control of the supreme leader, at the time Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This control massively increased after Khamenei took power in 1989. Since then, IRGC commanders have been hand-picked by the supreme leader. At the same time, the promotion of any person within the IRGC’s higher ranks is processed only after approval by the supreme leader’s military office.

The IRGC is also under the considerable political and ideological oversight of the supreme leader and his office. The IRGC is simultaneously under the supervision of two parallel surveillance bodies: the supreme leader’s representatives in the IRGC and the IRGC’s counterintelligence body, which exist at all levels from the IRGC’s joint chiefs of staff down to every platoon. Both bodies are directly under the supervision of the supreme leader. The counterintelligence organization’s surveillance is meant to ensure the IRGC’s loyalty to the leader. Khamenei’s representatives in the IRGC function as political commissars did in the U.S.S.R. They are responsible for political indoctrination of IRGC members and approve their ideological and political qualifications for recruitment and promotion.

The massive and continuous indoctrination of the IRGC, like the several purges of the IRGC since Khamenei came to office in 1989, has created an armed force based on Islamic ideology and, significantly, the idea of the Guardianship of the Jurisconsult. A common saying is that IRGC members are clerics in the Guards’ green uniform.

Despite the increasing power of the IRGC in the last few decades, the idea of the IRGC deposing the clerical establishment and replacing it with a military regime with a nationalist ideology is no more than wishful thinking. The IRGC and clerical establishment are two sides of the same face, like Janus in Roman mythology.


 

Nader Hashemi | Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies

I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s comment about reports that he had died: “The rumors are greatly exaggerated.” The likelihood of the current Iranian protests resulting in an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) takeover of the Islamic Republic is minimal.

Informed speculation on the topic must engage with the structure of power inside the Islamic Republic. Power flows downward from the most dominant institution of the Iranian state—the Office of the Supreme Leader—to other state institutions, including the IRGC. Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, carefully selects the senior IRGC commanders and then rotates them every few years to ensure loyalty to the regime. The relationship here is one of deep dependence.

Assuming an IRGC coup, what political ideology might inform it? A nonclerical option is difficult to imagine. The IRGC and the ruling clerics share a common historical and political experience shaped by revolution, war, sanctions, and Western criticism. Supplanting clerical rule would undermine a common Shiite Islamist worldview, rooted in clerical supremacy, that ties several Iranian hardline and conservative constituencies together. Without this bond, the Islamic Republic would fall apart.

Moreover, myriad sources of power sustain the Islamic Republic. Beyond the IRGC, there are the charitable foundations (bonyads), seminaries (hawzas), the associations of families of the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War, and various informal networks of patronage that extend deep into society. An IRGC takeover risks losing these bases of support.

However, Iran will soon face a succession crisis. Khamenei will be dead within the next decade. Who succeeds him will have huge implications for the future of the IRGC, given its control over large swathes of the economy. In this context, the IRGC might assert itself politically—not to overthrow clerical rule, but to ensure a clerical candidate who will provide continuity and maintain the political status quo.

In short, the IRGC tail is not wagging the Iranian clerical dog. The current protests are unlikely to change this basic reality.


 

Borzou Daragahi | Senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and international correspondent at The Independent

There has been some discussion recently of a possible military takeover of Iran by elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the wake of months of protests. Under this hypothetical scenario, the IRGC, or Sepah as it is referred to in Iran, would sideline the powerful conservative clergy, get rid of much of its cumbersome and unpopular ideological and religious pretenses and edicts, including the mandatory hijab, and transform the Islamic Republic into something akin to a classic military dictatorship like that established by shah Reza Khan, the former Cossack and army colonel who seized control of Iran in 1921.

Given the advanced age of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the unpredictability of events after his passing, anything is possible. But a “Sepah Khan” scenario is unlikely because of a number of Iranian social, political, and strategic realities.

To begin with, Iran’s military and religious establishments very much overlap. The senior ranks of the Iranian armed forces are strenuously vetted for ideological fealty, and religious indoctrination is part of their core instruction. Many clergymen have served in key positions in the armed forces over the decades—including Khamenei himself during the Iran-Iraq War. For the IRGC, getting rid of the “mullahs” means in some ways getting rid of themselves.

Additionally, the regime’s most crucial domestic security force is a religious-military hybrid. The Basij paramilitary organization is a military, religious, and social network under the command of the Sepah. Righteous piety in the name of God’s representative on earth drives these men to violence and sacrifice on the streets of Iran. It remains unclear what these often socially unstable men would do were a corrupt, whiskey-swilling junta leader to try to disband them or order them to attack strikers or protesters.

Finally, Iran’s overseas militias are loyal to the supreme leader. Scuttling Iran’s clerical framework risks alienating the IRGC’s most effective overseas strategic tools: the Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghan forces that extend Tehran’s geopolitical reach, remain fanatically loyal to the supreme leader, and would presumably bow to his successor.

Whether or not the IRGC believes in the legitimacy and sanctity of Iran’s clerical leadership, there’s a very high likelihood it would opt to keep it. In the final analysis, it serves the IRGC’s interests.